China is to build its first military base in Afghanistan for hundreds of troops carrying out counter-terrorism training missions across the border from its western Xinjiang region, according to reports.
The base will be only the second overseas site for the increasingly active Chinese military, coming a year after a base was opened in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.
Around 500 troops will be stationed in the base training their Afghan counterparts in the remote Wakhan Corridor in the north east province of Badakhshan, the South China Morning Post reported.
The report, which was denied by the Chinese government, said work had already begun at the site.
China has long worried that instability in Afghanistan could spill over into Xinjiang or that it could damage its economic plans for a 21st century Silk Road in the wider region.
Beijing has been accused of conducting a severe security crackdown on the Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighur minority, but says it is tackling Islamist violence. Hundreds have died in the violence.
It is particularly worried about Chinese nationals, including separatist militants from Xinjiang’s Uighurs, fighting and training inside Afghanistan. Afghanistan is also home to hundreds of fighters loyal to the Islamic State group, which has in the past vowed that “blood will flow in rivers” in China.
“Construction of the base has started, and China will send at least one battalion of troops, along with weapons and equipment, to be stationed there and provide training to their Afghan counterparts,” one source told the paper.
The project was considered “costly but worthwhile”, the source said.
A Russian news agency reported earlier this year that Beijing would finance a new base in Badakhshan after the two countries agreed to cooperate on fighting terrorism. Photographs purporting to show Chinese military trucks inside the corridor emerged in late 2016.
“A key function of the training base will be to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation and military exchanges between Beijing and Kabul, which is also part of their efforts to stop separatists from infiltrating Xinjiang,” said Song Zhongping, a military analyst in Hong Kong.
“Afghanistan is very weak on counterterrorism, and the authorities there are worried about a Taliban resurgence, but they can’t do anything about it without help from the US, China and other countries.”
As Ashraf Ghani’s Kabul government continues to lose ground to a strong Taliban insurgency, the Chinese are also worried militants hiding in the country will threaten its economic ambitions.
A report paper last month from the European Council of Foreign Relations said China’s fear was of attacks by groups like Islamic State on its economic projects in Pakistan and Central Asia.
China is expected to further strengthen its military presence in the region by setting up a naval logistics hub in the new Pakistani port of Gwadar.
The port being built with large amounts of Chinese investment is a cornerstone of its regional plans and will give the country access to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. China will control the port until 2059 when it will be transformed into Pakistan’s second naval base.
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